Matthew W. Mosca
China’s relations with the Asian world between 1500 and 1900 were shaped by a variety of political, economic, and cultural factors. A common denominator in these international relationships was a loose framework of ideological principles and administrative procedures later dubbed by scholars the “tributary system.” This “system,” first posited in the early 1940s, has remained the single most influential concept for interpreting the interactions of Ming and Qing China with Asian countries. However, in recent decades it has been critiqued from various perspectives, narrowed in the scope of its application, and modified by a greater focus on the actual course of specific cases rather than ideological principles. That is, historians have increasingly come to understand China’s relations with the Asian world as influenced by pragmatic considerations and changing local dynamics, so that each relationship and the factors shaping it are best understood on their own terms. One approach to the study of Ming and Qing relations with the Asian world is to consider it within the framework of three regional groupings. China’s interactions with its neighbors in Northeast Asia were shaped by its largely stable relations with Korea and the Ryukyu Kingdom, and its radically fluctuating relations with Japan, sometimes marked by conflict and sometimes by the deliberate avoidance of political contact. Early Ming political relations with maritime Southeast Asia atrophied as the role of European and private Chinese merchant intermediaries increased. Those with continental Southeast Asia (particularly Burma, Siam, and Vietnam), more enduring, were influenced by intense regional rivalries that occasionally impinged on the borderlands of China’s southern provinces. In these two regions, the Ming–Qing transition, although particularly resented in Korea where it involved two invasions, did not radically alter existing patterns of international relations. By contrast, the vast territorial expansion of the Qing Empire did greatly change China’s foreign relations to the north and west, where it encountered states that had not had relations with the Ming. In these regions the Qing government drew principles and practices from its foreign relations in the south and east, but modified them to fit new conditions. After 1800, and more intensively after 1850, European and later Japanese imperial power began to penetrate Central, South, Southeast, and ultimately East Asia, in each region undermining existing Qing relationships with Asian neighbors. By 1900, virtually all former Qing tributaries were under the direct or indirect control of the British, Russian, French, or Japanese empires.
Ceramics are the most abundant types of artifacts made by human beings in the last 12,000 years. Chinese potters discern two types of products: earthenware (tao), which is porous and does not resonate when struck, and wares with vitreous bodies (ci), which ring like a bell. Western potters and scholars differentiate stoneware, which is semi-porous, from porcelain, which is completely vitrified.
The earliest ceramics in the world are thought to have been made in China around 15,000 years ago. By the Shang dynasty, potters in China began to decorate the surfaces of their pottery with ash glaze, in which wood ash mixed with feldspar in clay to impart a shiny surface to the pottery. The first ash-glazed wares were probably made south of the Yangzi in Jiangnan.
In the 9th century, China began to export pottery, which quickly became sought after in maritime Asia and Africa. Pottery making for export became a major industry in China, employing hundreds of thousands of people, and stimulating the development of the first mass-production techniques in the world. Much of the ceramic industry was located along China’s south and southeast coasts, conveniently located near ports that connected China with international markets. Chinese merchants had to adapt their wares to suit different consumers. For the last 1,000 years, Chinese ceramics provided an enormous amount of archaeological information on trade and society in the lands bordering the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, contributing a major source of data to the study of early long-distance commerce, art, technology, urbanization, and many other topics. This section presents statistics from important sites outside China where Chinese ceramics have been found.
In terms of jurisdiction and punishment, the border between civil and criminal laws in imperial China is not clear cut. The same officials can handle both civil and criminal cases, and lawfully impose the same punishment, such as the death penalty, on unfilial sons and traitors alike. In terms of the sphere of interests, however, the officials know very well that some violations are more concerned with private interests than public interests. For example, they will settle loan disputes in accordance with the original private contract between the money lenders and borrowers, unless the interest rate is so exorbitant that it necessitates government intervention. Consequently, the imperial Chinese and modern Western civil laws are roughly common in their coverage of marriage, divorce, succession, disinheritance, property matters, and so on. And, like the Western laws, the Chinese laws have experienced historical changes, many of the most important of which occurred during the Song dynasty (960–1279) or the “Tang-Song transformation,” so called to highlight the tremendous progress of China from the medieval to the early modern stages. Against the principle of filial piety, both sons and daughters are now allowed to sue their parents without fear of the death penalty if their accusations are true. Against the principle of communal family, both sons and daughters can possess privately earned properties not to be shared by their parents and siblings. Against the principle of patrilineal succession, unmarried daughters have their inheritance rights increased at the expense of the sons, reaching the ratio of two shares for a son and one share for a daughter. Against the principle of different rights according to different status, a formal concubine can inherit the spousal patrimony and establish an heir when the wife is absent. These changes reflect that the legislative principles, though still far from enshrining equality before the law, are paying increasing attention to the balance of duties and rights with decreasing regard to family relation, gender, or status. As to the judicial practices, they are nearing the rule of law and becoming more predictable instead of inconsistent. These are the less-known or even misunderstood aspects of the civil law in imperial China.
Throughout the course of premodern China’s history, the planning and performance of religious ritual has been a primary concern. These offerings of bloody victuals, drink, and, later, incense to gods and ancestors seek to ensure the ongoing vitality and prosperity of the living and the peaceful security and well-being of the ancestral dead. Sacrifices were understood as food, sustenance for the occupants of the other world, who would, in return, imbue the sacrificed provender with blessings (fu福), which the sacrificer and family could share by consuming the food. This sacrificial ritual is at the heart of a diffuse, indigenous religion that encompasses people of all social classes, from the poorest peasant to the ruler and his representatives. It was never named, but scholars sometimes isolate segments and discuss them as “folk religion,” “state religion,” “Confucianism,” or “Daoism.” C. K. Yang dubbed the complex “shenism” based on the Chinese word for god (shen神), but this ignores the closely parallel practices directed toward the ancestors. Here we will use the term Chinese popular religion to refer to this complex of beliefs and practices.
Daoism (previously Taoism) is a vexed word that has been used to stand for several distinct terms in Chinese. Here it will refer to China’s indigenous organized religion, a faith founded upon a revelation in 142
Famines have played an important role in China’s history. Because the Confucian classics interpreted natural disasters as warnings from Heaven, in ancient and imperial China feeding the people in times of crisis was viewed as an essential part of retaining the mandate to rule. Formative famine-relief measures were codified in China’s first imperial dynasty, the Qin (221–206
After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, famines continued to be a test of state legitimacy. But Chinese modernizers largely rejected Confucian interpretations of famine in favor of the claim that modern science and technology would provide the best defense against disasters. By the 1940s, both the Chinese Nationalists and their Communist rivals called on people to sacrifice for the nation even during famine times. The Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949 promising that under Communist rule “not one person would starve to death,” but within a decade it presided over the most lethal famine in Chinese and world history. The horrors of the Great Leap Famine of 1958–1962 forced Chinese Communist Party leaders to make changes that ultimately paved the way for the rural reforms of the 1980s.
Chang Woei Ong
In a letter to his friend Wang Hui王回 (1023–1065), the great Song dynasty (960–1279) politician, scholar, thinker, and writer Wang Anshi王安石 (1021–1086) makes a distinction between the golden age of the ancients and the less-than-desirable world of the present. More importantly, it claims that the golden era was marked by a commitment to unity. Not only were morality and customs of the world made the same, but the learned were united in their learnings and opinions. The periods after the golden age, on the other hand, were marked by diversity and confusion arising from how the truth is understood. Wang believed that he had found the truth about unity and how it could be achieved from reading the Classics. His ambitious political reform (called New Policies) was a grand program that sought to bring the ideal of unity to the world through government.
Wang Anshi was of course not the only major thinker in Chinese history to ponder the question of unity. In fact, a dominant and enduring theme in the history of Chinese thought is the search for unity. Faced with uncertainties arising from a diverse and complex world, thinkers in different periods and with different intellectual orientations saw it as their main mission to discover the true nature of unity and ways of realizing it for attaining a harmonious world. The process began when Confucius (551–479
Steven B. Miles
Before the end of the Tang dynasty, cultural production was largely a court-centered activity. This began to change as the nature of China’s political, social, and cultural elite, the literati (shi), was transformed by the Southern Song dynasty. Henceforth, the elite of China was primarily a local elite, occasionally producing holders of high office but primarily focusing on activities in their home areas to achieve and maintain their status. One important activity was scholarship, which involved such activities as establishing private academies (shuyuan) and the production of texts such as gazetteers and anthologies, many of which were concerned with the locales in which they were produced. The late imperial period, beginning in the Song, witnessed alternating periods of statist and localist turns, as the initiative in scholarly production shifted between the imperial court and local elites. Intellectual movements such as Neo-Confucianism and evidential research (kaozheng) fed into the production of localist texts and the formation of regional or local schools of scholarship.
Manchuria is an English geographical term that, in the past three centuries or so, has referred to the region that approximately overlaps the region of Northeast China (Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang provinces) in the People’s Republic of China. A scholar’s choice of using or rejecting this term might be associated with their understandings of the historical changes in the territoriality of this region. From the 17th century to the mid-20th century, different powers contested over this region, including different tribes of the Jurchens, before the Manchus founded the Qing Dynasty; Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty; the Russians and Japanese; the Republic of China Government and Warlord regime; Japan and China; as well as the Communist Party of China and the Nationalist Party of China. All these contestations redefined the relationship between this region and China Proper, reshaping the social orders, communal identities, and statehood of the local peoples. Located at the nexus of the modern history of multiple ethnic groups and states, studies of modern Manchuria often require scholars to take transnational approaches, or at the least to adopt cross-border perspectives.
Hong Kong entered its modern era when it became a British overseas territory in 1841. In its early years as a Crown Colony, it suffered from corruption and racial segregation but grew rapidly as a free port that supported trade with China. It took about two decades before Hong Kong established a genuinely independent judiciary and introduced the Cadet Scheme to select and train senior officials, which dramatically improved the quality of governance. Until the Pacific War (1941–1945), the colonial government focused its attention and resources on the small expatriate community and largely left the overwhelming majority of the population, the Chinese community, to manage themselves, through voluntary organizations such as the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals.
The 1940s was a watershed decade in Hong Kong’s history. The fall of Hong Kong and other European colonies to the Japanese at the start of the Pacific War shattered the myth of the superiority of white men and the invincibility of the British Empire. When the war ended the British realized that they could not restore the status quo ante. They thus put an end to racial segregation, removed the glass ceiling that prevented a Chinese person from becoming a Cadet or Administrative Officer or rising to become the Senior Member of the Legislative or the Executive Council, and looked into the possibility of introducing municipal self-government. The exploration into limited democratization ended as the second landmark event unfolded—the success of the Chinese Communist Party in taking control of China. This resulted in Hong Kong closing its borders with China on a long-term basis and the local Chinese population settling down in the colony, where it took on a direction of development distinctly different from that of mainland China.
The large influx of refugees to Hong Kong in the late 1940s was transformed by a pragmatic colonial administration into a demographic bonus, as all were allowed to work freely and become part of the community. Those refugees, particularly from Shanghai, who arrived with capital, management knowhow and skills gave some industries, such as textile and shipping, a big boost. With the entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese community unleashed and the colonial administration now devoting most of its resources to support them, Hong Kong became an industrial colony and developed increasingly strong servicing sectors. By the 1980s, local entrepreneurs had become so successful that they took over some of the well-established major British companies that had been pillars of the local economy for a century. As Hong Kong developed, it looked to the wider world—something originally necessitated by the imposition of trade embargos on China by the United States and the United Nations after the start of the Korean War in 1950—and eventually transformed itself into a global metropolis. In this process, the younger generations who grew up after the Sino-British border was closed developed a common identity that made them proud citizens of Hong Kong, and they became agents of change in reshaping how their parents’ generation felt about Hong Kong and China.
The great transformation of postwar Hong Kong happened in the shadow of a dark cloud over its long-term future, which is a legacy from history. Hong Kong in fact consists of three parts: the island of Hong Kong, the tip of the Kowloon peninsula, and the New Territories, which amounts to 90 percent of the overall territory. The first two were ceded by China to Britain in perpetuity, but the New Territories was only leased in 1898 for a period of 99 years. As the three parts developed organically they could not be separated. During the Pacific War the nationalist government of China successfully secured an agreement from the British government that the future of the New Territories would be open to negotiation after the defeat of Japan. When victory came, the British recovered Hong Kong, and the Chinese government was distracted by the challenges posed by the Communist Party. After it won control of mainland China in 1949 the Communist government left Hong Kong alone, as it was a highly valuable opening for China to reach out beyond the Communist bloc during the Cold War.
In 1979 the British raised the issue of the New Territories lease, as the remainder of the lease was getting too short for comfort. Formal negotiations started in 1982, and it took two years for an agreement to be reached. The British government ultimately agreed to hand over the entirety of Hong Kong as a going concern to China, which undertook to maintain the system and way of life there unchanged for fifty years. The transitional period saw controversies over democratic developments in Hong Kong, which were limited at China’s insistence.
The formal handover went smoothly in 1997, and the colony became a Chinese Special Administrative Region. At first it appeared that Hong Kong enjoyed a high degree of autonomy, as promised by the Chinese government, but the scope for its autonomy was eroded gradually. The increase in interactions between the local people and the mainland Chinese, as well as the Chinese authorities’ refusal to let Hong Kong develop genuine democracy, nurtured a strong sense of Hong Kong identity, which started to transform into a kind of national identity that is different and distinct from that of China. By the mid-2010s this gave rise to a small but vocal movement that advocates independence.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Please check back later for the full article.
Print culture in imperial China spanned over twelve hundred years, from the late 7th century